Tucson GEAR UP works to raise H.S. grad rates

February 18, 2009

By hammersmith

The Tucson GEAR UP Project leaves a learning legacy in underserved schools as it works to create a pathway to graduation.

By Rebecca Ruiz-McGill, University Communications
January 27, 2009


The U.S. Department of Education, in an effort to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in college, has created partnership grants available to each state for the development of programs to help in the endeavor.

In 2006, The University of Arizona Office of Early Academic Outreach was awarded a grant and partnered with Tucson Unified School District, Sunnyside Unified School District and Pima Community College to accomplish the goal of graduating 65 percent or more of high school students currently enrolled in Desert View, Sunnyside, Cholla Magnet, Pueblo Magnet and Tucson Magnet High School. These are students who will graduate in 2012.  

The Tucson Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Project, known as the Tucson GEAR UP Project, began with a cohort of more than 3,500 students who then were in the 6th grade. “Students didn’t have to sign up for the program. They didn’t have to be a certain height or meet any other qualifications. They were simply part of the project by being enrolled in one of our partner schools,” said Elizabeth Arnot-Hopffer, associate director of the Tucson GEAR UP Project.

Over the years, with funds from the federal grant, the Tucson GEAR UP Project has worked to develop sustainable programs within the 19 partner schools that focus on academic preparation for both students and teachers, that provide support and information to parents and that provide academic and culturally relevant social support and access to college programs for students.

“We don’t want these programs to disappear. Our goal is to develop programs that will be sustainable to help not only the original GEAR UP 2012 cohort graduate and be successful in college but also to benefit any student who is enrolled in these schools thereafter,” Arnot-Hopffer said.

Looking toward that sustainability and graduation goal, a variety of innovative and imaginative GEAR UP programs have become a permanent part of the curriculum offered at the partnering schools.

“Funds from GEAR UP have created the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program at Cholla, Desert View and Sunnyside High Schools which provides academic support to students and professional development for teachers,” said Lori Tochihara, UA director of early academic outreach and director of the GEAR UP Project.

In addition, Tochihara said 944 students participated in summer programs sponsored by the Tucson GEAR UP Project in 2008.

Arnot-Hopffer said an example of a sustainable program developed for the GEAR UP students is the Math Through Mariachi program, which began as a summer program for the 2010 cohort. “It is a rigorous academic program and has become a part of the curriculum at Cholla High School to benefit those students who are not in the 2012 cohort.”

The program teaches algebra through the study of music and combines culture, community and family. Its original curriculum was created by a team of UA and community partners and has received nation-wide interest. The program is now in its third year and has advanced its curriculum to keep up with the 2012 students’ learning needs and is taught to the younger students at Wakefield Middle School who are following the educational path being built for the 2012 cohort.

To meet the academic, social support and access to college requirements of the grant, the project has developed academic clubs within the schools. Fresh Ink is a newly added afterschool club devoted to the development of the writing skills of the cohort of students enrolled at Sunnyside and Desert View High Schools. Four graduate students from the UA’s College of Humanities work to help students develop a written voice and share their personal stories with one another and ultimately with others through the publication of a book titled, “Believe in Me.”

Other ways in which the program achieves a university campus connection is with its Undergraduate for a Day program where UA faculty to host a group of students, usually fifteen or less, to sit through their classes and take notes. “Research has shown that students are more likely to enroll in college if they are given a chance to visit a college campus. We do more than just give them a tour. We give them the chance to experience a class and even train them to take college level notes. While on campus, students enjoy a lunch and we then review the experience with their college coach,” Arnot-Hopffer said.

Another campus link developed for the students is called the Wildcat Writers program. The program involves an e-mail exchange partnership between UA freshmen composition students and the 2012 cohort. The students will exchange e-mails and share their experiences with one another and in April will get the opportunity to meet face to face.  

The importance of cultural influence is also addressed by the GEAR UP team. The project has developed a variety of new programs including, Quince Para Mi Quince and Hip Hop to College to take popular cultural associations and give them an educational twist.  

Quince Para Mi Quince is a culturally influenced educational support effort that works within the concept of the importance of a celebrating a quinceñiera (a 15th birthday) and works to remind students of the importance of achieving a higher educational goal. Those enrolled in the program identify 15 activities that they can do to promote a college going culture at their school and then implement them throughout the year.

Hip Hop to College, another culturally relevant educational support effort, involves students writing hip hop music-based messages about going to college to help inspire and motivate the 2012 cohort and others to the realization that college is within their reach.

The GEAR UP team realized that attaining the goal of graduation and secondary education is a community effort involving parents and teachers.

Tochihara said GEAR UP families regularly receive communication from the UA via a parent newsletter titled, EDÚCATE. And to further support parents, the National Council for Community and Education partnerships developed a novela or Spanish-language soap opera-based video titled “Exito Escolar.” The video educates parents on the steps needed to prepare themselves and their children for college. The video is in Spanish and English as 80 percent of GEAR UP students are from Hispanic, Spanish-speaking families.

The video “facilitates the discussion of college themes because going to college is a family decision”, Arnot-Hopffer said. The video gives insight into applying for financial aid, college course requirements and includes encouragement for parents concerned that college is not an option for their children.   

Teachers also form part of the GEAR UP community encouraging post secondary education. The project offers professional development opportunities for teachers including writing and math tutorial software, Web sites, e-mail or one-on-one support for the 19 schools involved with the Tucson GEAR UP project.           

With three more years to go until the 2012 graduation, the Tucson GEAR UP Project is already looking toward the development of additional programs that will help the 2012 cohort and those who follow in their footsteps graduate and be prepared with what they will need to succeed in college.